The southern Salish Sea is a network of sounds and channels weaving in and out of craggy islands. Forests of Douglas fir and native arbutus trees sweep over mountains big and small. Above, bald eagles glide through salty air. In the water, pods of orcas search for schools of Pacific salmon to fill their bellies. Sailboats, fishing vessels, and the occasional ferry ebb and flow with the tides.
It is home to the southern Gulf Islands, an archipelago between BC’s lower mainland and Vancouver Island, dubbed by the New York Times as one of the top 50 travel destinations in the world. The area ranges from Gabriola Island in the north to South Pender Island, the southernmost Gulf Island.
In recent years, however, the Gulf Islands have made headlines for a different reason. The red hulls of freighter ships anchored off the shore have become a regular blight on the otherwise pristine landscape.
Together with local MPs, conservation groups, and First Nations communities, residents are appealing to Transport Canada to make changes to a decades-old anchorage system. There are currently 33 anchorages around the islands, which have become an overflow parking lot for ships as they await their turn to cross the Strait of Georgia into the Port of Vancouver.
The anchorages that line the remote islands are outside the port’s jurisdiction, so they face less oversight and fewer regulations. Ships may stay for as long as they want, at no charge, with minimal heed for the environment.
Chris Straw, a resident of Gabriola Island and founding member of the South Coast Ship Watch Alliance (SCSWA), has been studying the anchorage issue for the past five years.
Straw and other concerned residents began researching the anchorage issue back in 2015, when a proposal to establish more anchorages off the northeast side of Gabriola raised protests from residents. It was around that time that the amount of ships anchoring around the Gulf Islands increased dramatically, according to residents.
Straw explained that the main issue is “anchorage use is steadily increasing well beyond the volume of goods shipped.”
Back when the anchorages were originally designated in the mid-1970s, they were used only in an emergency. Now, it is a well-known fact in the industry that if a ship is early, it can simply park up near Ladysmith or around these islands and stay to avoid port fees.
Most of the anchoring ships—about 95 percent—are bulk carriers coming to Vancouver to load dry commodities such as grains and coal. Due to the nature of these goods, there are various factors that can interrupt the supply chain. Some of these factors include harvesting periods, weather, and rail transportation schedules.
Straw noted that in order to improve efficiency, there needs to be communication between the Port of Vancouver and the ships at all points of the supply chain process. If there’s something interfering with proper grain transportation, Straw said, “we should be communicating that before the ship even leaves the last port it’s at.”
The SCSWA also points to a few other systemic solutions, such as improving rail and other supply chain infrastructures, and reviewing contracts that include early ship arrival and excessive stays. Another suggestion is to expand the use of fixed mooring buoys inside the Port of Vancouver to allow for tighter ship arrangements.
“Fixed mooring buoys are huge buoys that are anchored on a long chain to the seabed,” Straw explained. Rather than drop its own anchor, the ship would hook up to the buoy.
A common argument in favour of the anchorages, according to the SCSWA website, is that residents in Vancouver put up with ships anchoring all the time, so why should the Gulf Islands be any different?
But, the anchorages in English Bay and Burrard Inlet are inside the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, and thus are designated for commercial and industrial use. Its infrastructure is designed to manage and safeguard industrial activity.
The Gulf Islands, however, are a recognized ecotourism area, and have been slotted by Parks Canada as a potential National Marine Conservation Area. Parks Canada also noted the area is “among the most productive marine ecosystems in the world,” nutrient-rich due to mixing freshwater and seawater.
Those who occupy the lush kelp beds, protected bays, and fast channels include the region’s endangered southern resident killer whales, five species of Pacific salmon, herring, marine birds such as cormorants and grebes, sea lions, seals, and much more.
Straw explained that when the ships drop their anchors, they also release huge chains to accommodate the tide as it rises and falls. These chains then mow over the ocean floor, and marine habitats along with it.
“If you watched a time lapse, you would see that they swing around in huge circles due to tides and wind. This has been known to occur, and has been studied in places where there are coral reefs,” Straw said.
In March 2020, a collision between two ships anchored in Plumper Sound solidified the need for governmental regulations and oversight. Due to a combination of strong winds and unpreparedness for adverse weather, the two ships collided, entangling their anchor chains and leaving a hole in one of the ships. They had been anchored just over 1000 metres away from one another.
In an article from the Times Colonist following the accident, Islands Trust Council Chair Peter Luckham said, “We think of this as a very near miss to a situation where literally millions of litres of bunker fuel oil could have become spilled onto the coast.”
In addition to the ecological damage and consistent noise and light pollution for wildlife and neighbouring communities, the area is home to delicate marine ecosystems used by Indigenous Peoples.
In February 2021, chiefs from Cowichan, Lyackson, Penelakut, and Halalt First Nations joined Cowichan-Malahat-Langford MP Alistair MacGregor in calling for immediate consultation aimed at ending the current anchorage system in the southern Salish Sea.
Cowichan Tribes Chief William Seymour, Lyackson First Nation Chief Richard Thomas, Penelakut Tribe Chief Joan Brown, and Halalt First Nation Chief James Thomas pointed out the lack of consultation when anchorages were first established in the waters of their traditional territories.
In October, MacGregor introduced a private member’s bill that addressed the proposed National Marine Conservation Area and the continued use of freighter anchorages. The petition to support this bill closes on March 30.
Christianne Wilhelmson, executive director of the environmental protection organization Georgia Strait Alliance, said in order for amendments to be made, pressure must be kept on the government.
“The one interesting thing politically,” Wilhelmson said, “is that the NDP, during the election last October, said they were going to help on the anchorage issue.”
Now, Wilhelmson said, the recently reelected, majority BC NDP government says the issue is out of its jurisdiction as shipping is within the federal jurisdiction.
“But they have a role to play here as an advocate for their citizens. I’ve met with government officials to raise this, and when they say it’s not their issue, I tell them it doesn’t matter. I say, ‘You have the ear of the Transport Canada minister—you should be using it,’” Wilhelmson said.
“I think that is one part of the solution, is that the province needs to step up. I know some MLAs are advocating for this issue, but it’s not gaining traction federally,” Wilhelmson said.
“The communities have important stories to tell, they have data to back up their concerns, and I think it’s really time for the government and the shipping industry to start paying attention to an issue that’s only going to get worse,” Wilhelmson said.
Much of the data the communities have gathered helps to offer solutions. Both Straw and Wilhelmson say improvements in efficiency are needed. “The Port of Vancouver needs to figure out a way to manage its cargo exports within its own means,” Straw said.
Other ports around the world are already leading the charge, such as the Port of Newcastle in New South Wales with its Vessel Arrival System (VAS). The VAS provides an opportunity for arriving vessels to manage their voyage speed to minimise time at anchor, which has reduced ships’ time in port by 50 percent.
Straw added, “The Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands is another example. Since the port is way inland, ships need to access it through a river, and so the ships going in and out of the port are timed down to the minute.”
As for a short-term solution? Wilhelmson said limits must be put in place, such as anchorage fees and fines for staying too long. Admittedly, implementing fees would only solve one part of the problem.
Wilhelmson added that an assessment of the current and potential damage should be made, in accordance with the new Ocean Protection Plan. However, both Straw and Wilhelmson acknowledge the importance of the shipping industry—especially for Vancouver, Canada’s largest port.
“It’s such a complex, intersectional issue,” Wilhelmson said. “When people say, ‘Oh, we need to just get rid of shipping in the Salish Sea,’ I say, ‘Well, that’s just not going to happen.’”
Straw said, “Shipping is really important. It has a lot to answer to in terms of pollution and all that, but we’re not here to damage the economy or to shut down the shipping industry.”
The communities have spoken and the data is there. One thing is certain, change needs to be made to ensure the rich ecosystem that makes up the southern Salish Sea remains intact for years to come.